Olympia Dukakis and Cher received the Golden Globe Awards, which they received in 1988 for appearances in the film Moonstruck. Later that awards season, both won Oscars. Reed Saxon / AP Hide caption
Reed Saxon / AP
Reed Saxon / AP
MAPLEWOOD, NJ – Olympia Dukakis, the veteran stage and film actress whose flair for maternal roles helped her win an Oscar as Cher’s mother in the romantic comedy Moonstruck, has died. She was 89 years old.
Dukakis died at her home in New York City on Saturday morning, according to Allison Levy, her agent at Innovative Artists. A cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
Dukakis won her Oscar through a surprising chain of circumstances, beginning with author Nora Ephron’s recommendation to play Meryl Streep’s mother in the film version of Ephron’s book Heartburn. Dukakis got the role, but her scenes were cut from the film. To make up for it, director Mike Nichols cast her in his hit “Social Security”.
Director Norman Jewison saw her in this role and cast her in Moonstruck. Dukakis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Cher took home the trophy for Best Actress.
She referred to her victory in 1988 as “the year of the Dukakii” because it was also the year that Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, her cousin, was the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. At the ceremony, she held her Oscar high above her head and shouted, “OK, Michael, let’s go!”
Dukakis, who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, had longed to be an actress from an early age and hoped to go to college to study theater. Her immigrant Greek parents insisted that she get a more hands-on education, so she studied physiotherapy at Boston University on a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
After her bachelor’s degree, she worked at an understaffed hospital in Marmet, West Virginia, and a hospital in Boston.
But the lure of theater eventually led her to study drama at Boston University.
It was a shocking change, she told an interviewer in 1988, noting that she had moved from the quiet world of science to a world where students routinely yelled at teachers.
“I thought they were all crazy,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
Her first school performance, however, was a disaster as she sat on stage without a word.
After a teacher cured her stage fright, she started working in summer theaters. She made her off-Broadway debut in 1960 and two years later she had a small role in The Aspern Papers on Broadway.
After three years with a regional theater in Boston, Dukakis moved to New York and married the actor Louis Zorich.
There were few acting jobs in the early years of their marriage, and Dukakis worked as a bartender, waitress, and other jobs.
She and Zorich had three children – Christina, Peter and Stefan. Deciding that raising children in New York on limited incomes was too difficult, they moved the family to a centuries-old home in Montclair, a suburb of New York, New York.
Her Oscar win kept the maternal film roles upright. She was Kirstie Alley’s mother in Look Who’s Talking and its sequels Look Who’s Talking Too and Look Who’s Talking Now; a sardonic widow in steel magnolias; and the arrogant wife of Jack Lemmon (and mother of Ted Danson) in Dad.
Her recent projects included the TV miniseries Tales of the City 2019 and the upcoming film Not to Forget.
But the stage was her first love.
“It wasn’t my goal to win the Oscar,” she commented after her win at Moonstruck. “It was the big part to play.”
She achieved this in New York productions like Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey in Night, and Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.
For two decades she directed the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, which specialized in classical drama.
Zorich died in January 2018 at the age of 93.
While her passion was on stage, one line from her Oscar-winning performance as Rose still seemed fitting: “I just want you to know, no matter what you do, you will die just like everyone else.”